Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Religion and Theology

G.K. Chesterton once wrote that theology kept men sane when religion would have driven them mad. All one needs to do, if he would apply Chesterton's observation about Medieval piety to the the modern world, is notice that everything from dubious Marian apparitions to snake-handling "Signs Following" cults in West Virginia, are filled with people who are deeply religious, utterly ignorant of theology, and quite mad. One sees the Blessed Virgin in muffins, and another thinks that when a snake does what snakes do, it is because a man's faith failed. Their exclusively emotional approach makes them Gnostic. What is needed by these Enthusiasts is a good dose of Scripture and the Right Reason of the Church with her authority in matters of polity and the doctrines of Antiquity and Universal Consensus (how is that for a mouthful of St.Vincent and Richard Hooker?). The problem with Enthusiasts is in their head, not their hearts.

Nonetheless, the reverse is equally true. After one labors in the academy or debates in the blogosphere, even when standing for truth, justice and the Vincetian way, and for the very noble effort of preventing the end of civilization as we know it, there must be an entering into His rest. There must be a place as well for the deep feelings of true devotion. When theology would make men Vulcans, religion keeps them human.

Yet, I propose a third alternative that unites head and heart in the truly Anglican way, the tradition of English spirituality, so practically given to us in our Book of Common Prayer. This way is the way of deep feeling and right doctrine combined in the experience of prayer and worship. To love God with your whole heart, soul and mind, is to worship at once as a whole person, one who thinks and feels simultaneously. A choice between theology for the mind and religion for the heart is not really necessary, neither is it a healthy choice, inasmuch as choosing to stifle one for the other is fraught with danger.

Jesus saith unto her, Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father. Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth. John 4:21-24

What serves better to this end than our Rule of life?

The experience of Anglican worship and prayer makes use of the mind and moves the emotions in ways that bring both under subjection to the spirit. That is because the Book of Common Prayer is nothing less than the Bible as prayer, expressing the deepest truth revealed in Scripture in a way that teaches and renews the mind, while moving the heart of man ever closer to God in repentance, gratitude, awe and love. That the language itself is sanctified by repeated holy usage, only aids the experience.

O GOD, from whom all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works do proceed...

More especially we pray for thy holy Church universal; that it may he so guided and governed by thy good Spirit, that all who profess and call themselves Christians may be led into the way of truth, and hold the faith in unity of spirit, in the bond of peace, and in righteousness of life...

We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all, for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory. And, we beseech thee, give us that due sense of all thy mercies, that our hearts may he unfeignedly thankful: and that we show forth thy praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to thy service...

Expression of love and of revealed truth pour out together, standing, sitting and kneeling, in a unity of body, soul and spirit. The Psalms are not merely read through in the thirty-day cycle, but prayed through. We join with King David and others in that very first ever Book of Common Prayer for the people of Israel, the Psalter that expresses the full depths of fears and the lofty heights of hope, the humblest and most sincere repentance and the most joyful exclamations of praise. Above all, in the Psalms we experience Christ himself, Son of God and Son of Man. The written words of king and prophets become our own words of prayer and worship; words inspired by the Holy Spirit, words that inspire our spirits to holiness. The Scriptures are read, informing the mind of God's revealed truth in the context of prayer and thanksgiving, where it is most safely and effectively transmitted from heaven into earthen vessels.

And, in the service of Holy Communion, as we prepare to receive the Sacrament of Christ's Body and Blood, the food and drink of eternal life, all the counsel of God is declared to us and by us. The Law is spoken and repentance is the response:

Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law... Lord, have mercy upon us, and write all these thy laws in our hearts, we beseech thee.

The word of God is read, including the Gospel where Christ himself is proclaimed. In this liturgy we are given the whole truth, so that even should the preacher fail in his responsibility by neglect or weakness, everyone hears the full message of the Gospel anyway. The message is heard along with confession and receiving the grace of God through the sacrament. Sorrow for sin, thanksgiving for forgiveness, worship, prayer and praise all coming together with sound and excellent presentation of the full truth of God's word, drawing near to God himself so as to combine experience with doctrine and emotion with sober thought. The heart and mind are together, the body, soul and spirit unified in one purpose, as we combine the deep feeling of religion, the experience of God, with sound learning in one united act.

Our religion cannot make us mad, because the sanity of our theology is part of the whole experience of drawing nigh to God.


Fr Tom said...

I attended a snake-handling service in Jolo WV nearly 45 years ago, as part of a class on comparative religion. (We sat on the back row, closest to the door). In that semester, we also attended a Greek Orthodox Easter service, a Jewish Seder, a Roman rite benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, and several garden variety evangelical/charismatic Protestant services. Fr. Hart has correctly identified the gnostic elements in the Church of Signs Following.

Tom McHenry+

Canon Tallis said...

I believe that when Martin Thornton wrote that the great English mystics, Julian of Norwich, Richard Rolle, Walton Hilton, and the writer of the Cloud of Unknowing, by their theology demanded what we know as the Book of Common Prayer he was stating much the same thing as you have written here. To the great mystics I would also add Walter Langland's The Vision of Piers the Plowman. Unfortunately most Anglicans in the Continuum are not aware of the English religious writers whose lives and writings made it possible to move beyond a liturgy which most people could not and did not understand for one which when used as it was intended would transform the whole of the English speaking world. Indeed, it would create that world.

But the real point is that however nice it would be to know all that, the most important thing for all of us, clergy and laity alike, in the Continuum is to embrace and live the prayer book liturgy as the Bible in practice. And we should do so in loving humility and not arrogantly because that liturgy has the same clarity and simplicity as the Ordo Romano Primus in language as beautiful as any in the Christian world.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

When I used the phrase "English Spirituality" I had Martin Thornton's book of that title very much in mind.

Canon Tallis said...

Father Hart,

I thought that might be the case because so much of what you have written in this line so deeply reflected the work of the major English mystics and ascetics.

In my family we have a story about how my younger brother alleged that two cookies had just jumped into his hands in the little local grocery store in Illinois in which we then traded. I had always scoffed at the story until Hilton's The Ladder of Perfection all but did the same with me. I kept putting it down and walking away from it only to find it again in my hands until I finally just gave up and bought it. My favorite English professor at the time, a man of immense classical erudition, saw me carrying it and told me that, considering my personality, he thought it entirely appropriate. In teaching Emily Dickinson, he had prefaced any reading of her poems with six weeks of lectures on Christian mysticism and mystical theology. I often wondered what others in the class thought of it.

Thornton's work is a classic and no priest in the Continuum should lack a very well read copy supplemented by a very prayerful reading of the works recommended. It would contribute greatly to an understanding of the theology and ascetic of the prayer book liturgy.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Lovely, practical, and balanced, Fr. Hart (like the Anglican Way to which you clearly cleave). Thanks.

Canon Tallis said...

I have just re-read this piece for the fourth and fifth times and it has gotten better with each re-reading. I thought about it while our little community did Morning Prayer and the Eucharist this morning and found myself settling in to be one with "all who profess and call themselves Christians" now and over the ages.

As Anglicans, it is in our simplicity that we find ourselves rich because we are kept so close to the essentials and not allowed to wander out to the exotic fringes. It helps you to understand and long fo Bermerton and Little Gidding.